A common criticism of the recent election has been that the campaigns failed to address many of the big issues that will affect the futures of most people.
It’s a fair point. I don’t recall hearing one politician talk about the rapidly changing world of business and work, and what this country may look like in the future – or indeed what they intend to do about it.
As someone who works in the field of artificial intelligence (AI), you would expect me to pay close attention to political statements on such things. But my interest in what national leaders think is not purely a commercial one. I truly believe that AI can change our world for the better.
However, despite its vast potential, I believe there is a key component which would allow AI to take off that is currently lacking – and that is strategic ambition.
I have read frequently, including in these pages, that we are supposedly on the brink of a Fourth Industrial Revolution. But you would not know this from the way that many in government are speaking.
Two cross-party groups have recently been formed on the subject of AI, and that is encouraging. But given the silence from Whitehall and Downing Street, I am forced to wonder whether their work is being taken seriously.
The simple truth is that the UK will not be able to lead – and certainly not change the world – without a clear national strategy.
The new Space Race
I ask you to consider the Space Race for a moment. This was a period of international technological innovation that spurred many of the things that we take for granted today – from powerful computers and commercial flights, to satellite television and non-stick frying pans.
There was a clear objective: get into space and land on the moon. That entailed exploiting the latest technology to get there first. This competition stimulated the United States and Russia to strive for technological breakthroughs.
The result was that the Space Race opened a new era in technology, fuelling innovations that have improved the daily lives of millions of people. AI can do the same today.
It is time for the UK to “shoot for the moon”. That way it can – and will – be a leader in this new landscape. If it does not, it will merely be a guest at someone else’s party.
Solving society’s problems
The government urgently needs to start thinking about not just how to improve what we do already, but about what we can do differently. It needs to set out its strategic vision for a new society, taking into account automation, the gig economy, and the increasingly interconnected nature of work.
This isn’t about how we confront the difficulties of developing AI – it’s about how we use AI to solve the problems facing our country, supporting the economy and improving lives in the process. These are challenges that require a new type of intelligence.
What is intelligence? Intelligence is using knowledge effectively.
Through technology we now have a wealth of knowledge that we did not have before. We have data, vast amounts of it. But what we have often lacked so far is a way of making it useful.
AI is the key to making that knowledge useful.
What to do with all that data?
Government departments sit on information that provides the clues to how society ticks. The data is there on our health, the benefits we draw upon, the types of transport we take, and the taxes we pay.
In isolation, this information is only useful to the department that holds it. But if aggregated and integrated in the right way, it can create intelligent solutions to society’s problems.
A country that wants to lead in this area needs a software platform to bring the datasets together. It needs the right people who know to ask the data the right questions, and the right AI to provide them with answers.
Britain needs to be clear and united on what it wants AI to achieve so that it can make the most of the data it has at its disposal. This may sound obvious, but often governments create a policy for a perceived problem, then look for data to prove that policy will work.
In addition, the government needs to design a regulatory framework that sets out the rules of engagement for developing AI solutions that benefit society.
Ideally we want a framework that drives us all towards a common goal of making business and public services function better, and confronts concerns about privacy and data security that prevent people from embracing AI’s potential.
If we act fast, and all pull in the same direction, this is an area in which UK can really shoot for the moon.